A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the intolerance of many fourth-century Christians. It occurred to me after I pressed “Publish” that in using the word intolerant, I used a word that has recently acquired a meaning different from the one I normally use. I can quite easily and realistically imagine some people I know saying, “Well, duh! Of course Christians are intolerant: they believe something and think I’m wrong for disagreeing.” These days, some people find it difficult to draw a line between intolerance and disagreement. I hear people say strange, silly things like “That’s okay if that’s true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Wanting so much not to disagree – because disagreement seems today to smack of intolerance, and intolerance is not to be tolerated – many people have decided that truth is all relative.
I disagree with that sentiment. But my disagreeing with you doesn’t mean that I’m intolerant of you. It doesn’t mean I want to insult you. Disagreement is actually a great honor compared with the “your-truth-and-my-truth” attitude; at least disagreeing with you means that I care what you think and want to think it with you, at least long enough to find out what’s wrong with it. Or who knows? Maybe I’ll think about it long enough to come around to your way of thinking.
Trinitarians and Arians disagreed. Given the premises each held, they were right to disagree with each other. The theory Arius proposed needed to be talked out, and the Church needed an Athanasius to show what was wrong with the Arian theory. I don’t complain about any of that. But when the Christians in power kill the Christians who disagree (and it went both ways at various times), they have become intolerant to the ultimate degree, and I can’t approve. Now, my not approving doesn’t mean that if I lived then I would want to kill everyone who was so intolerant of others that they killed them. I just mean that I disagree with them and that I would hope I could have tried to be the Lord’s servant Paul describes in his second letter to Timothy: “kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.”
Realizing that I still haven’t said much about what I read over the course of five weeks in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, I’d better move on. Gibbon continually moves and amazes me with a picture of a world without clearly defined edges. (We might say that the boundaries had tolerances!) Who was emperor of Rome? Well, when the dying emperor nominates one person but British legions declare someone else, the answer isn’t entirely clear cut. Was Rome the capital of the Roman Empire? Constantinople was clearly a capital. And the western emperors sometimes resided at Milan. But a Senate still sat in the ancient city. Was Rome Christian after Theodosius? The answer depends partly on how many believers in Jupiter were left and partly on whether Arians are to be considered Christian. Were the Visigoths the enemies of Rome? Thousands of them crossed the Danube to get away from the Huns; they assimilated themselves into Roman society and served in the army. From time to time, they rebelled. But at those times, were they Romans in protest or traitors or enemies of the state? The fuzzy boundaries on all these categories fascinate to me.
But that doesn’t mean that I believe that the truth of the categories is relative. It means that I think it is definitely true that they have fluid edges. The boundaries are fuzzy, not the truth.